President of the Château and domaine of Fontainebleau
President of the Château and Domaine of Fontainebleau since 2009, Jean-François Hebert comes from an administrative background, having begun his career at the Cour des Comptes. He is not a curator, but worked at the Ministry of Defense and was President of the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie for six years before moving to the Ministry of Culture.
At the Château de Fontainebleau, now a public entity, with more autonomy like the Louvre Museum, the Château de Versailles, and the Georges Pompidou Center, he is assisted by a curator formerly at Versailles, and a general administrator – three people who oversee a staff of 120. But that has not deterred his ambition or his vision for the dynamic development of one of the richest, and in his view, under-appreciated, cultural and architectural treasures in France. Fontainebleau will be the magnificent setting for French Heritage Society’s 30th Anniversary Gala Dinner and Dance.
Karen Archer recently sat down to speak with Jean-François Hebert in his office, along a sun-filled wing of the château. Although only an hour from Paris, the pervasive calm contrasts with the opulence of a château that throughout most of its long history has been at the very apex of power, incessant construction and fervent artistic creation.
As soon as Monsieur Hebert begins to speak, his hands gesture endlessly as if conducting a musical score, the notes pouring forth effortlessly to tell the mesmerizing history of this palace under his charge.
So, in his own, elegant, enthusiastic recounting, let’s travel through the château, back and forth through the centuries, on the wings of his words… (videos are in French).
“Fontainebleau is an extraordinary château with two major assets that set it apart from most other châteaux in France and possibly all the other châteaux in France. It is the only château where all the Kings and Emperors of France lived for over a period of eight centuries. There is a continual presence of all the French sovereigns in this château from the 12th until the 19th century. It is truly a home, the family home of the Kings and Queens of France. This is very different from Versailles that is marked by Louis XIV, or Chambord by François Ier.
Here at Fontainebleau you have the entire history of France and at the same time the history of architecture and art history. That is the first point. The second point is that it is probably the best-furnished public château in Europe. Why?
Because, in 1804 Napoleon I decided to use the château to host Pope Pius VII whom he had invited to Paris to assist at his coronation. Napoleon wanted to create a dynasty, and he chose the château of his predecessors. Napoleon said that the Château de Fontainebleau was the home of kings and of centuries. As he chose Fontainebleau to host Pope Pius VII, he had the entire château refurnished. This entailed reinstalling very precious furnishings from Paris. 18th-century pieces were purchased to refurnish the château, and more importantly, First Empire furniture was commissioned, of exceptional quality, and that still remains in the château today. Napoleon’s successors continued on this path and each further enriched the château, which means that today we have a château which is extremely well-furnished. It is a family home, a château with a soul, everything seems to be exactly as it should be. It is a lavishly furnished château which gives an impression of comfort and authenticity. It is authentic.”
“The Château de Fontainebleau has ancient ties with the United States and Americans, especially J.D. Rockefeller, Jr. who aided with the château’s resurrection. In 1870, with the end of the Empire, the château falls into disuse, it is no longer kept up, it is closed off to the outside world with its collections inside, a bit like Versailles at the time.
It is after the First World War that Americans aide with its resurrection, with the revival of the château. There is a beautiful plaque in the château thanking Rockefeller for his generosity. And that aid marked the beginning of a rebirth throughout the entire 20th century. It is also from that period that the summer architecture and music Masters programs at the château were initiated for American students.”
“The Château de Fontainebleau is in need of many restoration projects. Over the past two years we have been developing. The château will have 400,000 visitors this year. Last year visitors were up by 10% and this year it will be up again by 10%. We have made major efforts to increase our communications.
The Château de Fontainebleau has many advantages compared to other châteaux, but they are not well enough known either in France or abroad. Despite this, 60% of our visitors are foreigners. So the Château de Fontainebleau has a very good reputation abroad. To go along with this development, we have also launched a number of restoration campaigns, three very emblematic ones.
We are restoring Marie-Antoinette’s Turkish boudoir. This “cabinet”, absolutely sumptuous, magnificently decorated in Turkish style, is the only one remaining in this style today in French châteaux with astounding furnishings of gold, silver and silk. INSEAD, a business school in Fontainebleau, is helping finance the restoration of this decor. We are also in contact with American Institutions and benefactors about organizing an exhibition on Napoleon for additional funding to restore the furnishings.
The second major restoration project is Napoleon III’s study. The château still possesses all the furnishings that were in the study. And finally, the most important project, thanks to aid from Abu Dhabi, is the restoration of Napoleon III’s Imperial Theater which was only used for a few years and for very few representations. Today we see the theater as it was 150 years ago, magnificently preserved with its bright yellow décors that Napoleon wanted in keeping with the taste of Marie-Antoinette. Eugenie, Napoleon III’s wife, was fascinated by Marie-Antoinette and wanted to recreate at Fontainebleau a theater resembling that of Versailles. The public will be able to rediscover this theater as a major cultural event in 2013-2014.”
Fontainebleau is extremely well-furnished with many collections. These collections are conserved in 200 different sites throughout the château.
As the Court lived at the château until 1870, the château’s reserves could entirely furnish 200 to 300 courtesans’ apartments, complete with chandeliers, furniture, textiles, everything needed for daily life. This is an extraordinarily rich collection.
Fontainebleau is also the focal point of intense artistic creation, the birthplace of the French Renaissance. It is here that François Ier brought together the best Italian artists to make the décor, furniture, and other emblematic objects of the French Renaissance.
When you are in this setting, you can easily dream, glimpse the ghosts in the halls. It is not difficult to imagine the lives of the Kings and Queens that have lived within these walls.”